With all the excitement of ETS-LDI safely behind us, we've had a chance to reflect on a great experience, and on some on-floor revolutions in the realm of projection and lighting. ETS-LDI is first and foremost about the people in our industry, and the cross section was extraordinary and gratifying. A particular emphasis on projection and multimedia in lighting had taken hold; many sessions (including our own) were crowded with eager new practitioners waiting to soak up new technology and insights. We were excited to see what the other designers had to show this year, and we weren't disappointed. Elaine McCarthy has had a year that could well be called prolific, with fabulous work for the new Broadway spectacle Wicked taking center stage in her presentation. Leni Schweninger shared her incredible artistry with the transformation of large-scale civic spaces through lighting and image projection. Jim Mulder, from Disney's Imagineering, presented some creative work from the parks, and in particular revealed some of his oh-so-cool techniques for composing large-format film images for projection on buildings. Josh Weisberg, of Scharff-Weisberg, led a session revealing the dizzying multiple levels of video signal path and show control that made the Frank Sinatra tribute at Radio City Music Hall, one of the largest multimedia/staging events ever attempted. Koert Vermeulen from Art-Concept-Technology in Belgium blew away the audience in the Projection Portfolio session with pictures from his projects across Europe. His images from the Decrocher La Lune, an outdoor spectacle for the town of La Louviere showed a rich, deep, enormous palette, as did the picture of other event and corporate shows he displayed. Perhaps most interesting was Koert's coverage of another project where the design failed to work in his eyes, a perspective many designers are not eager to share.
Beyond the people was the gear, and what a bountiful crop it was. The floor seemingly hummed with convergence of lighting and media. An arms race had broken out across the spectrum of major manufacturers and vendors, with everyone showing their interpretation of media serving via lighting consoles. High End Systems rolled out the first of what promises to be a new category of lighting fixture, the “digital” light. The floor was bathed in the warmth (or cool) of countless LED-based products, almost all of them pulling double duty as lighting and imaging devices. We decided that there was a whole new range of design concept and product coming into its own here, and we dubbed it ULR imaging, or ultra-low resolution. Everything from arrays of Pixelpars to a new and revolutionary product from Barco, the MiPIX block, exploded with texture via media display. This is the year that will see the widespread inclusion of many projection tools in the lighting designer's palette; here's a look at some of the best examples that ETS-LDI had to offer.
Media serving was the name of the game for most of the major console manufacturers and lighting vendors. What are the common elements here, you might ask? All of these systems we will discuss had some array of fast disk space attached. All of them had some computer CPU as the brain of the serving solution, some Apple, some Windows based. All of them utilized higher end video I/O cards or peripherals to output signal. Most had some level of signal compression enabling better serving performance. Some featured the ability to incorporate live inputs as well as disk-based media.
Certainly the splashiest roll-out of imaging and visuals in lighting came from the High End Systems booth where the new Catalyst Version 3 media server shared the spotlight with the new DL-1 Digital Light. The Catalyst 3 software was a ground-up revision, and it was apparent that High End Systems had been listening carefully to its early adopters. Catalyst 3 works via the new Apple G5 platform. With 64-bit processing power (which Catalyst has not yet been recoded for) there is plenty of headroom for Catalyst to grow into the capabilities of its computer host. The new software featured a completely redesigned graphic user interface that provided all the information a designer might want, where they wanted it. One apparent limitation was the option of controlling the media server's capabilities from the lighting desk, or the GUI, but not both. Nevertheless, the software performed in an impressive, muscular fashion, showing the ability to simultaneously serve up four layers to one output. This meant that you could combine two kinetic layers of video, toss in a still logo treatment, and then mask the whole thing with an animatable gobo on top. Other simple yet important innovations included the ability to cross fade from one layer to another without any hassle or unusual work-arounds. The server has all of the features that seem to have established themselves as “industry standard” with this type of device; and this included image shaping, color correction, speed control, and various effects. The server came preloaded with a good deal of Digital Juice kinetic footage, as well as the whole High End gobo catalog. Additions to the media options included a lot of great flash animation that shows itself well in atmospheric beam sculpturing. Users can, of course, load their own creations onto the server for use as well.
Not far from the High End booth, Fourth Phase Lighting was showing its inherited treasure, the Mbox™ Server. Initially created to serve media to LSD's prescient IconM™, the MBox had most of the features described above in the “industry standard” category. The MBox works with any DMX desk, but is apparently more magical when run through the LSD Icon desk.
It didn't take long to stumble across yet more media serving solutions. Sitting quietly in the environs of the DHA booth, was The Hippotizer. The Hippotizer won our own private award for the coolest product that nobody else seemed to have found. Initially created by Green Hippo Ltd to cater to the expanding needs of European VJs, the Hippotizer had a vast collection of stock footage and texture to choose from, as well as the entire DHA catalog of gobos. The Hippotizer didn't feature as many available layers for blending as say, the Catalyst, but it allowed for transitions between kinetic clips as well as a masking gobo layer. The Hippotizer was set apart by its stunning price points, and its preconfigured hardware/software packaging. In addition to a reliable disk based serving setup, the Hippotizer featured absolutely knockout control surfaces that ranged from a 49 key custom operational keypad, to a pro version with a slick interface and touch-screen capabilities. Also available were versions of the Hippotizer that made its power available via any DMX desk, which put it on a par with any of the other products out there. With a base price of around $12,000 the Hippotizer is a viable product for the tighter budgets, and it did not lack for power despite its economy.
We weren't yet done with DMX console-meets-media server though. Some discreet whispers from friends at VLPS led us to a private luncheon where VLPS proudly revealed the tight new integration of the Virtuoso DX-2 with every serving solution out there. They capped it by showing off their own new media serving solution, the Virtuoso EX1 Media Server, which had all the apparent power and flexibility of any of the servers covered so far. Elements that set the Virtuoso EX1 serving solution apart were its ability to import 3D objects in a variety of typical industry file formats, map video to them, and manipulate them in a truly three dimensional compositing space; also the server's tight integration with the elegant lighting desk and its operating system will make this a compelling choice.
On the fixture side of the spectrum, the High End Systems DL-1 Digital Light certainly created the biggest buzz. High End has mated a 5,000 lumen Sanyo LCD projector, with modified lens control motors and an external dimming iris, to the reliable pan and tilt platform found in its automated lighting fixtures. The DL-1 moves with all of the agility and speed of any larger automated light. The dimming iris banishes the dreaded video black in total blackout situations, and the DMX channel control of the fixture provides the user the ability to control all of the projector lens and focus attributes, as well as the movement. The drawbacks in this fixture are its quite modest light output, and the use of LCD projection technology as opposed to DLP. In production environments where 10,000 lumen and better projectors are becoming the norm, the 5,000 lumen output of the LCD must be carefully accommodated in the lighting environment. High End can of course meet this need for powerful output in its other, mirror based Catalyst moving head, which can mount to a variety of industry standard high-output projectors. It will be interesting to see how this line may expand with more powerful projectors in yokes yet to come. It can be imagined that Martin Professional and Vari-Lite likely have their own digital lighting solutions in development, as it seems a foregone conclusion that automated lighting and projection technology make a natural partnership.
And then on to ULR. “Ultra Low Resolution” was our own pet term for the proliferation of LED based, media driven, textural lighting and display products. Leading the pack here was Barco's flexible, MiPIX module. The MiPIX modules contain four, three-color LED sources, and can be stacked much like Legos to create totally variably sized and shaped surfaces. With some spacing the MiPIX blocks assume the form of a textural light lattice. When butted together closely in large surfaces they gave a more clear appearance of being a media screen. Perhaps most interestingly, the MiPIX can be constructed into three-dimensional objects, as Barco showed with its own ‘eye’ logo built from MiPIX modules sitting big as life in their booth. With video texture wrapping around this irregularly shaped dimensional object, we were temporarily mesmerized.
A little further along the aisle saw the fine scientists from Element Labs and its very cool Versa TILES. The Versa TILES were LED based, rectilinear tiles. The LEDs lit the tiles from the edges, and the tiles had been constructed with a gain structure that enhanced light output and color reproduction. The Versa TILES could be constructed to a specified screen shape and dimension, or came available in stackable pre-built panels that had built in rigging and cable connection points, certain to appeal to the rental/staging vendors. We thought the Versa TILE were a beautiful example of our ULR classification, while its scale of economy makes it accessible to many budget levels.
And so the line blurs further. The proliferation of media servers, digital lights, and “ULR” moves multimedia tools squarely to the center of the lighting tool palette. We think that most of the LDs out there who have automated solutions at the heart of their methodology will be eager adopters of these tools. Thought of strictly in terms of kinetic textural opportunities, they make a powerful contribution. Much of Elaine McCarthy's wonderful work in Wicked can be found at the areas of transition between Ken Posner's lighting and Eugene Lee's scenery, between real and virtual. Much of the use of these new tools won't make itself apparent in the sense of it being “video” or “projection.” Rather it will be adding a depth of coloration and detail that offers a great deal of specific and variable control. What's not to love about that?